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Turtles May Have Been Feasted On as Part of Funeral Rites at Ancient Turkey Site

Turtles May Have Been Feasted On as Part of Funeral Rites at Ancient Turkey Site

During excavations at Kavuşan Höyük, six miles (9.7km) from the modern town of Bismil in Turkey, archaeologists discovered a mysterious burial. Apart from human remains, the grave includes several previously slaughtered and butchered turtles.

The excavations, led by Rémi Berthon, archaeozoologist at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, and Güriz Kozbe, archaeology professor at Batman University, Turkey, took place in a southern bank of the Tigris River. According to Discovery News , experts discovered the remains of a woman aged 45-55 and a 6 or 7-year-old child buried in a tomb. The skeletons are believed to be more than 2,500-years-old. Remains of turtles, which belonged to a species known from ancient times for their aggression, were also found with the two individuals. The turtles were surely slaughtered and butchered. It is believed that the site was a multi-period mound site.

The excavations were a part of a hydroelectric project, created to study the archaeological materials that are soon to be underwater. The works took place from 2001 to 2009. During the 2008 season the researchers discovered several objects dated to the 6th century BC. Amongst these discoveries, was a human burial surrounded by the shells of 17 Euphrates soft-shelled turtles ( Rafetus euphraticus ).

The Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) is still alive, but endangered, today. Here are a few basking on the shore of the Tigris River.

The Euphrates soft-shelled turtle (Rafetus euphraticus) is still alive, but endangered, today. Here are a few basking on the shore of the Tigris River. ( S. Turga )

LiveScience reports that the burial was dated to the late Iron Age, a post-Assyrian period in this part of the world. The researchers confirmed that the human remains discovered in the tomb are dated to this period. It is unknown if the woman and child were related, as DNA tests were not performed until now. The researchers do, however, see some evidence suggesting the sex of the child: “A broken iron fibula grave good that was placed next to the skull may indicate that the child was a girl,” Rémi Berthon and Güriz Kozbe wrote in the latest issue of Antiquity.

Position of the three post-Assyrian silos discovered in trench G11 at Kavuşan Höyük (left); position of the human and chelonian skeletons in silo 3 (right).

Position of the three post-Assyrian silos discovered in trench G11 at Kavuşan Höyük (left); position of the human and chelonian skeletons in silo 3 (right). ( Kavuşan Höyük archaeological project )

The burial of the child is very interesting. LiveScience says that the infant was found lying face down, with its left leg bent at the knee and the right leg fully extended. The child’s left arm was stretched above, while the right arm lay under the body. It also looked like the child was protecting its face. The female skeleton was discovered lying on her back in a semi-flexed position. The causes of their death do not seem to be connected to violence.

Archaeologists identified the species of the turtles at the site. Apart from the Euphrates soft-shelled turtles, there were also two spur-thighed tortoise ( Testudo graeca ), and three were identified as Middle Eastern terrapins ( Mauremys caspica ).

Middle Eastern terrapin (Mauremys caspica) specimen from Bismil district.

Middle Eastern terrapin (Mauremys caspica) specimen from Bismil district. ( D. Ayaz )

Berthon told Discovery News .

“We know that the child and the woman were buried in a short time range because the woman’s skeleton, found just below the child, has not been disturbed when the child’s body was placed into the grave. Although the Middle Eastern terrapin is very common in eastern Turkey, this is the first evidence of its use as a grave good. Finding Euphrates soft-shelled turtles in a burial is unprecedented as well.”

The Euphrates turtles became known to western science through the French naturalist Guillaume-Antoine Olivier on June 1797. According to the information he received from local residents, their meat was not good to eat. They said they used it as a medication for a variety of skin diseases. The turtles with an olive-green skin that covers the carapace, arguably look like mythical beasts. They are known to have a carnivorous diet, although they also feed on plants and vegetables as well. The researchers noted that they can hunt large mammals. Two other species discovered in the tomb could have been pets, but the Euphrates presence is still a mystery.

In Middle Eastern tradition, turtles are a symbol related to a life after death. People also believed that turtles held special powers. The researchers think that the remains of the turtles at the Kavuşan Höyük site may be evidence of a funeral feast , but it is also possible that they were used for other ceremonial purposes.

The top and bottom of a turtle shell (known as the carapace and plastron) from a burial at Kavuşan Höyük.

The top and bottom of a turtle shell (known as the carapace and plastron) from a burial at Kavuşan Höyük. ( R. Berthon )

Although the discovery of turtles in the burial appears odd, it is not. In graves excavated at the Ra's al Hamra 5 cemetery , in Oman, shells and skulls of green sea turtles were discovered. They were dated back to the 4th millennium BC. According to the researchers, they were perhaps an element of some important ritual, which is also unknown.

Featured Image: Human skeletons with turtle remains. Source: Kavusan Hoyuk archaeological project

By Natalia Klimczak

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